“We may be nearing the endgame with Covid but we are only starting to see the permanent changes it has wreaked on how we work. In a nutshell, “remoting” is here to stay.
“When people went out working from home in March, they knuckled down very fast and got on with it,” says Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland, the organisation for HR professionals.
“With more time for their job and less time spent traveling, and less time spent between meetings, engagement and productivity went up in a lot of organisations. So the case for the capacity of organisations to deliver with remote working was proven.”
Over time however new issues emerged, not least of which was an increased amount of employee fatigue. Much of this is attributable to the fact that remote working leaves staff with all the work and none of the interstitial social elements that make it fun.
“People are missing the social contact,” she says. Employers have noticed an issue in relation to teamwork too, in so far as the ability to collaborate has been impaired.
Isolation and anxiety have emerged as issues. Things “are tougher in winter generally”, she points out, and employers have responded by putting supports in place around employee mental health and wellbeing.
Staff social activities
They’ve also been trying to replace traditional Christmas events such as lunches and parties with online social activities, such as quizzes and staff choirs.
Making remote working “work” is vital because a wholesale return to our former ways of working is unlikely.
“I think the changes we have seen will sustain because there is really strong employee demand for it, to the point that employers who insist on going back to having all staff working onsite will find it difficult to retain employees,” she cautions.
“What we will see instead is blended working, where staff work a couple of days from home and a couple of days in the office, so that they will get the best of both worlds.”
Staff will, she predicts, work from home for more focused tasks and come into the office for meetings, collaborative work, brainstorming and planning sessions.
Although much has been made about the fact that this should free up organisations to downsize their buildings, saving on overheads, such changes may be difficult to achieve.
That’s because it is not practicable to have some people in and some people out on a rolling basis if in fact what teams really need, for maximum impact, is to have everyone in together.
“You will want all your team to be in on the same days, and all the teams you liaise with too,” says Connaughton.
Organisations will likely reconfigure their interior spaces to manage that, she predicts, most likely getting rid of individual desks and workspaces in favour of collaborative spaces, where people work together on round tables, plus meeting rooms and break-out spaces.
That in itself will lead to a review of premises. “Property expansion has already stopped but people are still trying to make the right decisions in light of Covid, which means that, in the meantime, they need extra space between people. But as we work through the next six to nine months, they will see what needs to be done in relation to buildings and property portfolios will be revised,” predicts Connaughton.
In the meantime, employers are in many cases only now getting to grips with what it will mean to have a significant portion of their staff working remotely over a sustained period of time.
According to a spokesperson for Ibec, the employers’ organisation, that will mean investing in technology and communications tools for staff. “Employers recognise that remote working may impact on collaboration. However, collaboration is enabled when the employee has access to the right tools and training on how to use these tools,” they say.
Employers will also need to put a written policy in place on home working, which adheres to Health and Safety Authority guidance, and put the processes in place to ensure legal compliance in areas such as working hours and data protection for home workers.
Part of the talk of worker fatigue right now stems, anecdotally at least, from employees unused to remote working finding it difficult to switch off fully from work, and not stopping themselves from checking emails after hours.
Training may also be needed to enable staff to follow other new processes that are needed when working from home too, such as training on cybersecurity, as well as on activities including how to run virtual meetings, if they haven’t done so already.
It’s worth getting it right because Ibec has identified a number of advantages to remote working, including the flexibility it gives employees, and the fact that they can reduce commute times and, so, have more time to spend living their life.
Some 61 per cent of employers surveyed by the organisation say that offering flexibility in working hours and location is a key determinant in their ability to attract and retain staff.
“Remote working is recognised as a valuable option for accessing a more diverse workforce and to enable the business to access a talent pool outside of the immediate geographical region,” says Ibec’s spokesperson.
The challenge, however, is that remote working does not suit every personality type, or every role, possibly making it harder for some organisations to become “employers of choice”, than others, in the new world of work that lies ahead.
Recruitment and retention strategies will have to be put in place to manage that fact. Culture needs to be addressed too, not least because it is so famously cited as “eating strategy for breakfast”.
“Organisations are conscious of the possible impact on organisational culture as employees cease to work side by side,” says Ibec’s spokesperson. “Steps will be needed within organisations to preserve organisational culture and transmute the established organisational culture in new ways across a dispersed workforce.” After a challenging year, interesting times.”